WASHINGTON – An ex-Air Force intelligence officer admitted to “willfully” keeping top secret documents on a thumb drive and computer in his Tampa, Fla. home, a federal plea agreement signed last week reveals.
Retired Lt. Col. Robert Birchum, 54, pled guilty Friday to a charge of “unlawful retention of national defense information” after investigators discovered he’d kept 135 top secret, secret and classified files on the thumb drive and computer hard drive in 2017, the plea deal states.
The charge, filed in the US District Court for the Middle District of Florida, carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Birchum retired in July 2018 after 32 years in the military, during which he “worked in various jobs in intelligence,” including as “chief of combat intelligence for a certain Air Force group,” according to his plea. He also worked with classified information at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the US Special Operations Command.
The information comes as the country comes to grips with how the government handles classified information after revelations that President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence each were discovered to have classified documents in their private residences. Special prosecutors have been assigned to investigate the matter in both presidents’ cases.
It’s an issue Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) on Monday said the House Oversight Committee will review this legislative session, adding that legal counsel from the National Archives will address the critical committee on Tuesday regarding the classification process and document tracking.
“All I know is there’s a problem when you have two special counsels investigating roughly the same thing supposedly, then there’s a problem and we need to fix the problem, if at all possible,” Comer told the National Press Club.
As for the Air Force scandal, “[Birchum] abused a position of public trust and used a special skill in a manner that significantly facilitated the commission and concealment on the offense,” prosecutors said in the plea document. “Because of his job duties … [he] held a top secret security clearance.”
Some of the documents were classified at “Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information” level, prosecutors wrote in the plea arrangement. If disclosed, the information “reasonably could be expected to result in damage to the national security.”
“Some of the classified national defense information the defendent access concerned Department of Defense locations throughout the world, detailed explanations of the Air Force’s capabilities and vulnerabilities and, among other things, the methods by which the Air Force gathers, transmits and uses [intelligence] information,” prosecutors wrote.
For example, two of the thumb drive documents contacted presentations “summarize the [National Security Agency’s] capabilities, detail methods of collection, and identify targets’ vulnerabilities,” according to the plea arrangement..
Investigators later searched a secondary, temporary residence Birchum had overseas and discovered a second hard drive containing another 117 files containing classified national defense information. In addition to the digitized information, they discovered 76 pages of printed confidential documents inside the ex-airman’s Florida home.
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